Singing God's Words or Man's Words?
August 26, 2014
Years ago I was asked the following question by someone who holds to exclusive Psalmody: "Do you think it is better to sing God's words or man's words?" My answer: we should never sing man's words. But I say this as someone who sings hymns (e.g., "Be Thou My Vision").
As much as I love "Shine, Jesus, Shine," many praise and worship songs simply cannot be compared to God-breathed Psalms! When I am depressed or miserable, I turn to the Psalms. They are the marrow of my never-dying soul.
Nonetheless, with some trepidation, I believe exclusive psalmody has certain limitations. Believe me, you do not want to walk down a dark alley with a Trinity hymnal or a Michael W. Smith cd in your hand and bump into a couple of guys who hold to exclusive psalmody. They are as zealous for the Psalms as Baptists are for lakes and grape juice.
So are the inspired words of God in the forms of Psalms to be preferred over man-made hymns in corporate worship? Should Presbyterians give up the Trinity hymnal and replace it with the Trinity's hymnal?
Quite apart from the fact that many Reformed and Puritans did not hold to exclusive Psalmody (more than you might think), I believe John Owen allows us to answer the first question I raised above in a manner that might enable those opposed to hymnody to understand why we sing hymns outside of the Psalter.
We do not only believe that the Word of God is binding on us, but the inferences and meaning are also binding. Not only what the Scripture says, but also what it means is infallible.
Here is Owen's argument:
"For if it is unlawful for me to speak or write what I conceive to be sense of the words of the Scripture, and the nature of the thing signified and expressed by them, it is unlawful for me, also, to think or conceive in my mind what is the sense of the words or nature of the things; which to say, is to make brutes of ourselves, and to frustrate the whole design of God in giving unto us the great privilege of his word."
Thus, for Owen, as we declare the truth of the Trinity, "we may lawfully, nay, we must necessarily, make use of other words, phrases and expressions, than what are literally and syllabically contained in the Scripture, but teach no other things."
Words such as "substance", "essence", "person", and "trinity" are all words that are lawful to use. But Owen goes further. If these words convey the sense or meaning of the Scriptures, including the nature of God, may we express the truth of God in the following words, "God is one essence in three persons"? If so, then this sentence is God's truth.
This is where Owen's argument becomes hugely important:
"For howsoever the lines be drawn and extended, from truth nothing can follow and ensue but what is true also; and that in the same kind of truth with that which it is derived and deduced from. For if the principal assertion be a truth of divine revelation, so is also whatever is included therein, and which may be rightly from thence collected. Hence it follows, that when the Scripture reveals the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be one God, seeing it necessarily and unavoidably follows thereon that they are one in essence (wherein alone it is possible they can be one), and three in their distinct substances (wherein alone it is possible they can be three), this is no less a divine revelation than the first principle from whence these things follow."
Those words, "this is no less a divine revelation than the first principle from whence these things follow," are hugely significant for me in my own thinking about the way one does theology. Perhaps "divine truth" would be more appropriate than "divine revelation," but I agree with his general point.
Are there hymns that are divinely true because they convey the accurate meaning of God's word? If they accurately capture the sense of Scripture then we are dealing with God's truth, and not merely "man's words." The truth of God's word gives rise to truth:
"Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise."
"Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!"
What shall we say about these hymns?
1. Singing hymns such as "Holy, Holy, Holy," which contain God's truth (not merely man's words) enables me to distance myself from a Jew or a Mormon who would likely sing a Psalm with me. They cannot sing the last line, which is why the Mormons changed it in their own hymnals.
2. Singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" provides the church with an excellent tool to convey, state, defend, and enjoy the truth of God's word in a manner that even preaching and praying cannot. There is far less chance for error in selecting a biblically true hymn than a sermon and prayer. After all, how many "pastoral prayers" ask God to "just" do this or "just" do that, and then go on to ask a whole bunch of other things he can "just" do. And how many sermons are riddled with some interpretative error?
3. I think we can refer to singing Holy, Holy, Holy as singing the "words of God" on the same grounds that Paul referred to his own preaching as the word of God (1 Thess. 2:13).
Of course, there are words in many hymns that are untrue. "No crying he makes" from the hymn, "Away in the Manger," is not sung in our church. There are many imperfect hymns and modern praise songs. Quite what "blaze Spirit blaze" means, I have no idea. "Above All" by Michael W. Smith has words that make me want to vomit. And Chris Tomlin's version of Amazing Grace: What does "And like a flood his mercy reigns" mean? Hymns are to give the true meaning of Scripture, not leave us needing another hymn to interpret the hymn.
Fortunately, I can deal with these errors by not allowing them in the order of worship. (That isn't to say my wife writes the pastoral prayers, by the way, since I allow myself to be "blown by the Spirit").
In summary, the first question raised above puts us on the horns of a false dilemma. The real question should be:
Must we only sing God's words or can we also sing the true meaning of God's words?
I'm off now to sing with my family psalms, psalms, and psalms (Col. 3:16).
Pastor Mark Jones once preached in an exclusive Psalmody church for a year. But he got fired after singing "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know" in the middle of a sermon to illustrate how children can only sing these words if they are baptized Christians. A Baptist church called him shortly thereafter. He was fired again.